Democrat Jon Ossoff has lost the most expensive race for a House seat in US history. Republican Karen Handel beat him by pert near four points, becoming the new representative of Georgia’s sixth congressional district and shattering Democrats’ hope of retaking the House with the aid of a fortunate meteor strike. This election was not very important. To hear FiveThirtyEight and various other pundits tell it, it wasn’t even good for a bellwether. The only thing we can say conclusively is that it occasioned the spending of more money—about $55 million, by the Times’s count—than was ever before spent on a congressional race.
Was it worth it? Not for Democrats, who only managed to wedge another loss for low-agenda centrism into their electoral postseason. I hesitate to say it was worth it for Republicans, either. They squeezed donors tightly to increase by one their majority in a chamber that seats 435. But at least a shitload of consultants got paid—and in an off year, no less. Say what you will about the Democrats’ recent streak of expensive moral victories; at least it’s funded commercials like this:
I’m no veteran campaign operative, but I think the idea for this advertisement was actually an idea for some tweets. What does this message gain from becoming a video? Maybe the campaign wanted to reach voters who watch television instead of using the internet but still admire people who stare numbly at their phones. Perhaps their research found that voters in GA-6 liked Jon Ossoff but wanted him to more strongly resemble a two-episode character on Veep. Or maybe the old ad-budget pie got sliced up in a way that left an off piece.
But wait, you say, ever on the lookout for opportunities to be charitable, this looks like B-roll footage. Maybe this ad was made from the kind of bland, soundless footage campaigns release publicly so that unaffiliated groups can use it in their own spots. The whole tweeting conceit is probably just a clever workaround. But no, the last frames inform us that the ad was paid for by Jon Ossoff for Congress and, almost as improbably, approved by Jon Ossoff.
It’s easy to second-guess the Democratic Party lately, and I think now is a good time to remember that no one else has demonstrated any better understanding of how to beat Republican candidates. But ads like this one explore the limits of campaigning without a strong policy agenda. To a lot of viewers, this is footage of a bland corporate type promising not to be Donald Trump. That doesn’t offer much to voters who worry that bland corporate types are running the country into the ground—a description that covers a substantial portion of the electorate, plus many of the people who hold themselves outside it. It’s funny how limp Democratic messaging has become. But only for a second, and then I get scared.
Speaking of first ideas, the logical way to put a national news peg on a story about Montana’s special election is to call it a referendum on Trump. I can think of more than one reason to resist that interpretation, though. When Gianforte ran for governor in November, he underperformed Trump by ten points, losing a state that the Republican at the top of his ticket won easily. Since then, he has restyled himself as a full-throated supporter of the Trump agenda. But even if Gianforte is now running on the president’s message, today’s election won’t necessarily tell us what Montanans think of it, because the Democratic candidate is deeply flawed.
Like Gianforte, Rob Quist has never held elected office. He is best known as the former singer in a country-rock group called the Mission Mountain Wood Band. His party selected him in the hope that his name recognition would give him an advantage in the short election, but they seem not to have run a credit check. Weeks into the campaign, it was revealed that the IRS had filed liens against the Quists for unpaid property taxes in 2011, and that they stiffed a Kalispell excavation contractor in 2001. His campaign, staffed by old hands in the state party, has done a poor job managing the news cycle and allowed opposition researches to pound a steady beat of such embarrassing revelations, including last week’s speculation that the Quists have avoided paying taxes on rental income.
Thus far, the Quist candidacy has been a referendum on Montana Democrats’ willingness to take what their party offers them. Given his dismal performance and Gianforte’s proven ability to contradict national trends, I don’t think you can call today’s vote a referendum on President Trump. Oh yeah—there’s also this thing where one of the candidates assaulted a reporter twelve hours before the polls opened.
I don’t know how much impact that will have. As Cillizza points out, around 70% of the expected total ballots have already been cast by mail. The remaining 30 percent is more than enough to swing the outcome—but who knows how many people who vote today, in person, are getting the news within 18 hours of publication? Given the exceeding strangeness of last night and the many uncontrolled variables in the campaign up to this point, I don’t think what happens today will tell us anything for certain about the national mood. It’s a nice peg, but let us be careful not to hang too much on it.
Early Wednesday night, Guardian reporter Ben Jacobs reported on Twitter that he had been “body slammed” by Montana congressional candidate Greg Gianforte, who broke his glasses. It was one of those stories that asked more questions than it answered. Since then, Jacobs posted an audio recording of the incident, which sounds as though Gianforte erupted after being asked about the Republican health care plan but might also sound like a microphone being dropped into a sack. It’s unclear what happened or how it might effect tomorrow’s special election in Montana, but at press time it appears that Gianforte did get angry at a reporter, again. Jacobs account, partially confirmed by Buzzfeed reporter Alexis Levinson, holds that there was a local news crew in the room at the time, so it should be easy to corroborate. One hopes that there is video of Gianforte executing a grappling takedown on a reporter or footage that exonerates him from same. But one must never expect too much.
Congressional candidate and caricature of a rich grandson Eugene Graf IV
Since Donald Trump announced his plan to appoint as Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke, Montana’s sole representative in the US House, no fewer than six Republicans have threatened to campaign for his seat. Six! One of them is Eugene Graf IV, the scion of a Bozeman real estate fortune pictured above. Graf: He doesn’t remember shoving you into anything. As much as I would like to see Montana politics return to old-school corporatocracy, Graf is a long shot. He has not previously run for elected office, and his work experience is limited to working for his family business and, as past president of the Montana Homebuilders Association, lobbying for his family business. Yet he is sure to meet one qualification for office: the $1,740 fee the Montana Republican Party is charging each candidate to run.
That fee—set by state law at 1% of the salary of the office sought—is designed to defray the cost of organizing statewide primaries. It seems a little odd to charge it for candidates in this special election, where a nominee will be chosen not by primaries but by members of the state Republican committee. The food at that meeting is going to be great, I guess. Assuming he ponies up, the most likely nominee seems to be Ed Buttrey, a moderate Republican credited with orchestrating the compromise that allowed Montana to accept federal Medicaid funds last session. Among conservatives, of course, that’s a debit. But they have yet to put up a candidate of their own who can plausibly threaten him. This makes Buttrey’s run a barometer in the ongoing conflict between moderates and the right wing in Montana’s GOP. You can read all about it in this week’s column for the Missoula Independent.
Why read about the recent past, though, when you can focus on the future? This week marks the Indy’s annual Bold Predictions issue, in which various people including me speculate on what 2017 will bring in Missoula, Montana, and the world. My first two bold predictions, made in 2013 and 2014, crushed it: Missoula really did set out to buy the water works in 2014, and conservatives in the legislature really did overplay their hand in 2015. Last year’s prediction—that Uber would put at least one of Missoula’s two taxi companies out of business—has yet to come true. But there’s still time! Keep watching this space or even some more reliable news outlet for updates on my prediction for 2017, which is that Republicans will become staunch defenders of Medicaid until they can blame someone else for taking it away. I also predict we’ll be back tomorrow with Friday links.
Rep. Ryan Zinke (R-MT) visits a Special Forces parade in Helena.
Last week, increasingly real thing that happened Donald Trump tapped Rep. Ryan Zinke (R-MT) to be his Secretary of the Interior. Assuming the Senate confirms him when it reconvenes in January, Montana will need to select a new representative to the US House. But whom? State law calls for a special election within 85 to 100 days of the seat being vacated. It also authorizes the governor to appoint an interim representative, but Montana Republican Party Chairman Jeff Essman said that was probably unconstitutional. Even though her party holds the governorship and the law is on her side side, Democratic Executive Director Nancy Keenana agreed with him. They’re not even going to make the Republicans file some kind of lawsuit. There will be no interim rep, as state Democrats have decided to give up a seat in Congress in the interest of…comity, I guess. I’m sure Republicans will repay the favor later.
It’s razor-sharp political instincts like these that have led some Democrats to suggest Denise Juneau as their candidate in the special election. I like Juneau, but she did lose a statewide campaign for the same office six weeks ago. Is there no one else? In this week’s column for the Missoula Independent, we examine the field—including Richard Spencer, who persists despite increasingly widespread allegations that his father is a broken tube of a chicken semen. We’ll be back tomorrow with Friday links!